To do anything right, you have to start with good people

Blog | 2020-12-21 | By: Mitchell Pham, Chair, Digital Council for Aotearoa
Child sitting on fathers shoulders with arms out

By Mitchell Pham, Chair of the Digital Council for Aotearoa

This final update of the year is appearing on our new website. You’ll notice one thing about our website. People - young people and diverse people. This tells you a few things about us. While our term is reviewed annually, we are not only thinking about the now. We are thinking about the medium-to-long term future - about how we can be the good ancestors our digital future needs us to be. While technologies make things easier, make things possible and help solve big problems, to what end? Digital technologies are not the end in themselves. They are tools. They are in service to our learning, connecting, growing and wellbeing. Which means as a Council we are not technology led, but people led.

For all of us on the Digital Council and our Secretariat team, our greatest satisfaction this year has come from the genuine connections we have formed with people we would normally not connect with in our non-Council working lives. The people who have guided and led our thinking and our work programme have been many and varied. This year, we met with over 130 businesses and individuals.

We went into these conversations having no predetermined or pre-formed visions. We simply wanted to hear about the needs and views of New Zealanders. This wide open approach shook out some magic gems that became purposeful actions for us. These conversations guided our 2020 focus on trust in automated decision-making and were the energy behind our drive to ensure important voices are heard so that no-one gets left behind. They surfaced the things that New Zealanders are concerned about in the wake of Covid-19’s global spread and domestic containment. They led us into conversations that we’ll pick up next year with the e-commerce, supply chain and logistics sector and the tourism sector, for example.

These conversations were not just about gathering and surfacing insights. In every case, we are sharing what we are hearing and noticing publicly, as well as in my meetings with Ministers and government agency chief executives.

When you work with partners, you have to work within their realities

Working with the government has been a big learning for me and for other Council members. The mechanics of government were a mystery. The government has welcomed our free and frank advice and mandated us to challenge the status quo. The Department of Internal Affairs and Statistics New Zealand have worked hard to unlock what we needed to do our work.

We are still learning how to shape our advice and recommendations in ways that are easy to implement and create change. I am meeting with government chief executives to understand how their worlds work and to make connections with industry and community-led initiatives that the Council is aware of. 

We know there is significant work underway in government to adapt ways of working to reflect our changing digital environment. But to be blunt, watching from the outside can be frustrating. Progress seems slow on some key issues, even where a course of action has been suggested. Joining up across a range of agencies still proves difficult. Opportunities to improve wellbeing outcomes are lost, for example through policy processes that do not reflect or incorporate the views of people who are most affected by decisions.

Surfacing the voices that matter 

This is where we see a role for ourselves in connecting government to the voices of those who are most affected (often negatively) by government and industry decisions. This year we sought out members of Māori, Pasifika, disability, youth and ethnic communities. We asked them to share with us their experiences, aspirations, hopes and challenges around automated decision-making. All of our Council members have been affected by this genuine engagement with New Zealanders.

Observing the participatory design  workshops was mind blowing for me! I was very impressed with the team at Toi Āria: Design for Public Good. They expertly modelled a design process that puts people in control of shaping the decisions that are made about them. I was in awe of the rich insights from the workshop participants. What blew my mind was the direct impact of algorithms and artificial intelligence on people in ways I could not even imagine previously - and I have imagined many things and lived through many of them myself.

The more we listen, the more we understand

One thing I never quite imagined was the world that would open up to me being part of a Council such as this. We may be a small team, but what a smart, passionate, energetic, dedicated bunch of people. This extends to our secretariat support from the Department of Internal Affairs and Statistics New Zealand, and our research partners this year, Antistatic, Toi Āria, Te Kotahi Research Institute, and Brainbox. This extended team has brought such a diverse range of experience, experiences, perspectives and networks that individually none of us have. We are all the better for it. I am also sure we have forged some lasting friendships. 

Just as I hoped, some of our town hall participants are better for having connected with others in their sector whose work and perspectives they may not have been aware of. I find it hugely satisfying connecting people across sectors, such as Pasifika community organisations with tech agencies. I want to see more doors opened (maybe revolving doors) to help people pass through into each other’s worlds. The more we listen, the more we come to understand.

Let’s not leave everything about 2020 behind

I know many of us are well ready to leave 2020 behind. Before we do, we need to consider what we take forward from 2020 that will help stand us in good stead for 2021. 

A few key thoughts from those we connected with this year come to mind. They raised questions for us to consider next year. I welcome your thoughts and ideas (email us) on these questions and your guidance on the issues we need to be looking at next year. 

Aotearoa needs to grow its digital moral fibre
This is a phrase coined by Kirk Mariner in a guest blog. One in five New Zealanders is still digitally excluded. The impact of this was starkly revealed during Covid-19 lockdown. The great news is that digital inclusion is a busy space. Many people are working towards a common good. The question this raises is, how will we know that all this work is contributing to a common, sustainable outcome? Who has a systems view of this? Where do you see that the Digital Council can add the most value in this space?

You don’t leave a carving in the rain

I hope it is OK to quote this phrase which captured me from Te Kotahi Research Institute's wānanga on trust in automated decision-making. It was said in relation to algorithms - how do we care for code in relationship to people? I see its broader meaning. The Council now has a responsibility to care for the hopes and desires that were shared with us around automated decision-making. As we plan to release our final report and detailed recommendations next year, we welcome your thoughts on how we join our voices in calling for changes that foster the trust and trustworthiness in automated decision-making and related technologies that you wish to see. 

Our livelihood as a nation depends on our relevance to the rest of the world

Conversations with industry leaders highlighted how good we are at forming internal committees and how we forget to look broader and beyond, to grow with the rest of the world. I have observed this in my own space doing business between Aotearoa and Asia. We need to look outward as well as inward. We need to open our eyes and ears to what others are doing. Whatever we are doing to recover from the impact of 2020 in New Zealand, how do we rebuild both economic and social connections with the rest of the Asia-Pacific region? How do we seize emerging opportunities presented by ‘the new normal’ to be more relevant and impactful to the rest of the world?

Building on the best of what is
While we are hearing, and acknowledging the challenges being faced by communities, we have also seen impressive efforts and collaborations, shining examples of initiative, innovation, ingenuity and investment across Aotearoa. 

The people of Aotearoa are innovative, have impressive digital and data expertise, and are committed to developing and using data-driven technologies for the learning, growth and wellbeing of everyone. How do we amplify, support and build upon the best of what is already here?

Thank you

These are just a few of the big questions from this year that we carry forward with us. Thank you to those who shared their perspectives with us this year. Thank you to those who carried out research on our behalf, wisely advised us, and who collectively partnered with us. Thank you for your openness, frankness, honesty and passion. To do things right, we have to start with good people. It is your voices that energise us to grow an Aotearoa where digital and data-driven technologies are designed and used with ambition and care in ways that give effect to Te Tiriti o Waitangi, grow trust, embrace innovation, and embed equity.

We wish you a happy, healthy, fun-filled, sun-filled and safe holiday season. For those who celebrate Christmas, Meri Kirihimete.

Mitchell, Colin, Kendall, Marianne, Nikora, Rachel and Roger.